afterlife like clouds
Reading Time: 12 minutes (贝莉儿 DANIST.) Obviously, it's just like this.
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I mentioned that in this post I’d be sharing a belief that I had to discard for lack of supporting evidence. Over the past day or so, a lot of people have taken a stab at which belief I might be talking about today! And in truth, I could have chosen a lot of them. Seriously. But I wanted to share one that could apply to a whole lot of ideologies. Once I’d narrowed things down that far, one belief popped right into focus. So today, I want to show you how someone who really does want to base her entire worldview on little-f facts does exactly that. Here’s how I evaluated my own belief in an afterlife with the facts as humans now know them, and what I did with what I learned.

afterlife like clouds
(贝莉儿 DANIST.) Obviously, it’s just like this.

“My Life Now Only Has Room for Truth.”

There’s this very serious thing in the 1990 movie The Russia House (IMDB) that Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, Katya, says to the newbie spy Barley. He has just told her of his deep love for her. This is her response:

I hope you are not being frivolous, Barley. My life now only has room for truth.

In the movie, Katya has gotten involved with a dissident faction within the Soviet Union. She knows that anything less than the full truth could destroy her and her entire family, just as it is now destroying her country. Whether it’s living a lie or believing lies, she faces danger on all sides.

This utter insistence on truthfulness makes Katya an idealistic and enigmatic figure in the movie — the one truth-telling woman among hordes of skilled liars trading in secrets.

So on the one hand, it’s kind of a melodramatic thing to say. On the other, well, anybody in her position could be forgiven a little melodrama, perhaps.

That one line grabbed me so hard when I heard it. Her words rang through me like a bell:

I ached to have a life that contained room only for truth, that wasted no time on lies.

I wanted all of my beliefs to be based on nothing but reality.

The Three-Pound Universe.

When I deconverted, I ejected false beliefs entirely from my life.

Or so I thought.

In reality, I held a lot of beliefs that’d been hijacked and piggybacked by Christianity — a sort of underpinning, an undercarriage even, for the specific beliefs involved with the religion. There were a lot of these, ranging from mistaken beliefs about relationships, to rejection of human rights, and even to misunderstandings of the essential nature of the universe.

Slowly, slowly, slowly I began to correct these errors — and to learn better. Every time, it hurt when I began suspecting I’d been drastically wrong about yet another thing! But I persisted. I felt it was better to admit I was wrong and then learn better than to drill down on being wrong.

Eventually, I rounded the midlife bend. With each passing year, Katya’s proclamation has only felt more and more applicable to me. Gradually, it felt like I had less and less time to waste on anything that is not true.

And then the Great Orange Calf Idol swept across America. During the years of his impossibly-incompetent presidency, I (along with many others) saw firsthand just how destructive it could be to believe in claims that are not true. It became dreadfully important to accurately assess claims and to dismiss ones that aren’t supported by evidence. All the while, I became all the more determined to base my beliefs only on reality.

My hopeful belief in some kind of afterlife was one of the last loiterers I evicted from my three-pound universe. Maybe now is a good time to talk about how I went about testing my belief in an afterlife.

“They’re Made Out of Meat.”

“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”

“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you getting the picture?”

“Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.” [Source]

It seems like humanity came up with the idea of an afterlife relatively recently. At one point, we just let our dead fall where they might. Then, around 100,000 years ago, we began to bury our deceased with grave goods and signs of ritual treatment. That said, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s completely sure about when humans began to believe in an afterlife, but for a long time most religions had dead people living in “a shadowy half-life” in whatever world awaited their adherents. Soul and body were inseparable.

Even early Christianity didn’t immediately hop on board the “it’s like this world but way nicer!” train. Early leaders of this breakaway Jewish sect thought that people would “sleep” in their graves till the end of the world, then be judged and hopefully allowed into Heaven.

(But you could jump the line by martyring yourself, went one rumor. It led to a whole lot of hopeful Christians seeking the martyr’s crown in distressingly direct fashion. Embarrassed church officials quickly revised their god’s offer.)

As soul and body became more and more distinct from each other, these developments and more marked humans’ understanding of the afterlife.

Like a lot of people, I held that belief for a very long time after deconversion from Christianity. It just seemed so impossible that there was just nothing after death for humans.

But was it true?

Was any of it true?

Silicon Heaven.

Kryten: Don’t be sad, Mr. David, sir. I am going to a far, far better place.
Lister: Just out of interest, is Silicon Heaven the same place as human heaven?
Kryten: Human heaven? Goodness me! Humans don’t go to heaven. Oh no, someone just made that up to prevent you from all going nuts. [Source]

The first thing one notices, when surveying different religions’ notions of the afterlife, is glaring and inescapable:

They are all different.

They feature different versions of nice-afterlives and nasty ones, presided over by different entities entirely, and often have very different criteria for entry — or rejection.

No way, no how can they all be correct. Indeed, they are often mutually exclusive. 

That’s a very good sign that the whole notion of the afterlife isn’t real. Any time you see that kind of plethora of competing ideas about one thing, be wary, especially if there’s no real objective way to test any of the claims involved.

When something is real, a bunch of competing ideas and theories about it might spring up, sure, and often do. Eventually, we test and discard the ideas that don’t adequately explain what we’re encountering. This process winnows those competing ideas down until eventually we end up with one that does explain it.

This is exactly what happened with Germ Theory and the Theory of Evolution and countless other long-established scientific theories. But there’s no Theory of the Afterlife — because very little about it can be tested in the first place. What has been tested offers no support whatsoever for the entire notion. Instead, we’ve got thousands of competing claims about all these different afterlives, none with any  credible support to offer.

So: the existence of countless conceptualizations of the afterlife was a serious mark against it, as was the wealth of untrustworthy, non-credible, and irrational pseudo-evidence that believers create and brandish as PROOF YES PROOF that their belief happens to be the one true claim out of all of them.

“The Brain as a Computer.”

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

Stephen Hawking, 2011

I decided to begin at the basics. I asked:

Is there some part of our minds that is entirely separate from our bodies? Is there some aspect of me that extends past my brain and persists after death?

After a great deal of research into credible sources, I had to say no, there did not seem to be. Nobody had ever, ever, ever found any evidence whatsoever to support the idea that any part of our sentience persists after death.

  • All those countless hucksters holding seances to chat with Dear Departed Aunt Mildred? Just cold readers.
  • The Christians claiming they experienced Heaven (or Hell), then returned to tell the tale? Liars.
  • And the ghost stories? Evidence only of the deep crushing grief of loved ones missing someone dear.
  • Near-Death Experiences (NDEs)? Distressingly varied in nature, easy to induce in very-much-living people at no risk of dying, and worst of all completely inconsistent even within single religions.

Not one afterlife-believer has ever offered anything credible and objective to support such claims.

On the other hand, we do have a lot of contradictions to this notion.

The Cognitive Revolution.

What we think of as our minds seems utterly dependent upon the meat of our bodies — especially our brains. Anthropologists seem fascinated with the question of exactly when and how humans gained sentience — and what had to happen to make that sentience a permanent development (insert Trumpist joke here).

In his groundbreaking 2015 book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari discusses what he calls “the Cognitive Revolution” that he thinks occurred about 70k years ago. It’s a compelling idea. Homo sapiens evolved about 200k years ago. But we only began doing all that flashbang geewhiz sentience stuff about 70k years ago. (You can find some similar ideas here too.)

In fact, we evolved alongside a bunch of other human species, including the Neanderthals. Some of us even have DNA from those other species in our bodies.

And for most of our existence, we weren’t even sentient really, much less religious.

So it wasn’t just being Homo sapiens that made us sentient. Something else happened to us as we developed. And that something doesn’t seem to have been divine in nature at all. It was just our species struggling to survive, adding little fillips here and there. Those developments were things like decoupled cognitionhyperactive agency detection, and minimally counterintuitive worlds (MCI) — along with a whole lot of other stuff I talk about here. These cognitive developments formed the building blocks of religion later on.

Perhaps the most important of these abilities involved being able to talk about stuff that didn’t actually exist in the real world — and to imagine a mind as something that can exist without a body. A lot has to happen cognitively, it seems, for anyone to do that. 

A Big God.

I’ve had enough, I’m getting out
To the city, the big big city
I’ll be a big noise with all the big boys
There’s so much stuff I will own
And I will pray to a big god
As I kneel in the big church

— Peter Gabriel, “Big Time
(raise your hand if you were singing the words by line 2)

When we developed that ability, Yuval Noah Harari tells us, we were suddenly given the tools we needed to take over the world.

Unfortunately, we introduced the underpinnings of religion into our species then as well: the ultimate expression, after all, of that whut ain’t even real.

Once the Cognitive Revolution occurred, the extinction of all the other competing Homo species happened rapidly. 13k years ago, the last of those died out. Then, it was just us.

And shortly thereafter, we kick-started the Agricultural Revolution. We began building cities. We tamed plants and animals.

And we invented big gods for our big cities. The more control a group’s leaders want, the more powerful their gods seem to become, hmm?

Nothing we found in our earliest history controlled groups better than religion could. If anything could have competed with religion for effectiveness, then we’d have used that instead. I’ve no doubt of this point.

The Men Behind the Curtain.

The Wizard of Oz: Do you presume to criticize the Great Oz? You ungrateful creatures! Think yourselves lucky that I’m giving you audience tomorrow instead of 20 years from now!
[Toto pulls the curtain aside, revealing the real Wizard of Oz as a short, middle-aged man with blond hair]
The Wizard of Oz: Oh… The Great Oz has spoken! Oh!
[the Wizard hides behind the curtain, even though Dorothy and her friends have seen the real Wizard]
The Wizard of Oz: [stammers nervously] Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! The great and – Oz has spoken!
Dorothy: Who are you?
The Wizard of Oz: I am the great and powerful… [voice lowers] Wizard of Oz.
Dorothy: You are? I don’t believe you.
The Wizard of Oz: [timidly] I’m afraid it’s true; there’s no other Wizard, except me.

— The Wizard of Ozobviously (1939)

Back when I slowly pieced together this puzzle, I felt dismayed.

I mean, I’m showing you this stuff from Sapiens, yes. However, I knew most of this stuff already from studying worldbuilding for roleplaying games. (Oh my gosh, I’ve got SO MANY books about city-building and pantheon-construction and all that.)

I wish Sapiens had existed years ago, though, because it puts into one place a bunch of different packets of knowledge that add up to one thing:

People invented religion. No other way around that one. Religion originated within humans’ own inventive minds and nowhere else. It has no outside support for itself. We are the man behind the curtain.

That’s exactly why no religion looks quite like another, why they all make such different and mutually-contradictory claims, and why none of them contain a scrap of evidence for those claims. And yet they’re still so similar in their dysfunction, in their lack of supporting evidence, in the quirks of human minds that they gleefully hijack for their own purposes, that it’s impossible to escape that conclusion.

That means that there’s very little chance of any religion’s claims about the supernatural being true — and that most particularly applies to their claims about the afterlife.

Like an Iron Spike Through the Brain.

The final key, for me, was learning about our brains.

Such remarkable, beautiful, unspeakable power can be found in our brains, and yet holy cow, they are fragile.

And they are the only place we have ever found that makes us us.

If our brain gets harmed somehow, or gets sick, or is deprived too long of what it needs, then we can completely lose that us and never get it back. If we are born with brains harmed or deprived like that, we might never gain an us in the first place. A purely astonishing array of congenital conditions can do exactly that.

One of them, asparagine synthetase deficiency (ASD), causes a whole constellation of some of the worst congenital problems I’ve ever heard of. And all of this awful stuff for lack of an ability to make asparagine, a little bitty amino acid that human brains really need like whoa.

By now, we’ve done a bunch of studies about stuff like traumatic brain injury (TBI) and know that these injuries sometimes lead to changes in personality and cognitive ability. Sometimes studies find small shifts, like this one did; at other times, studies find that affected people can change a lot. (The classic example here, of course, remains that of Phineas P. Gage.)

People surviving strokes often change in similar fashion.

One might also mention the barbaric, widespread trend of lobotomization in America in decades past. The mostly-women who endured this procedure experienced marked changes in personality afterward.

Or heck, we could even mention psychoactive medications. They can ease depression, mood swings, anxiety, and more. They often make an incredible and very positive difference in someone’s life — and yes, change our personality.

All this stuff comes down to the same central truth:

We are our meat. Our meat is us. If something happens to our meat, then our us can sometimes change radically.

Nobody’s ever found credible support for any other notion.

No Tongue With Which to Taste the Feast.

Our brains dictate so much of what makes us us. We perceive things in our environment through our senses — eyes, ears, tongues, skin, etc — and those perceptions send that information along to our brains via electrical signals. Our brains then send signals back to do all kinds of things. We can even detect those signals with caps of electrodes set on people’s heads. That’s one way that we know that our brains are constantly producing electricity.

These signals tell us that the cake we’re eating is good, that our friend just smiled, that we better wake up soon so we can go pee, that we’re grumpy over this-or-that event, that our hand hurts so we’d better get it away from that hot pan, whatever it might be. All of our emotions come from that one remarkable organ: the brain. It constantly interacts with our environment.

When we die, that remarkable organ turns to mush (or somehow against all odds gets preserved!). The electricity completely stops. It is the one kind of organ failure that nobody comes back from, though many people mistakenly think otherwise.

Once our brain has ceased to operate, what then receives and interprets signals? When there’s no brain chemistry at all, what tells us we’re happy or sad or afraid or suffering or joyful?

Gosh, y’all, it would really suck for Jesus and his fervent zealots, wouldn’t it, if their quirky li’l take on the afterlife happened to be the real one? Just imagine them all trooping down from the banquet hall to watch the billions of people suffering in Hell — and then realizing that nobody’s suffering because we lack bodies that can feel the sensations of eternal torture, brains to translate those sensations to unthinkable pain, and then any nerves with which to send the needed signals to writhe and scream for the entertainment of loving Christians!

Fundagelicals would get just furious at such a disappointment!

Amid the Ruins of a Shattered Belief.

So at last, I faced what I’d learned.

On the one side, I had countless religious zealots — and lifelong programming — shrieking that humans do indeed live forever in some capacity, to some extent, in some location that varies in comfort and tedium depending on what we do during this finite lifetime.

Alas for them, though, not one of those zealots has ever ponied up any evidence in support of these claims. My lifelong programming could be nothing more than a bunch of very earthly developments in human cognition. Instead, we find these adherents lying about having such evidence all the time! And there’s a reason why, of course: they entirely lack real evidence.

Then, on the other hand, I came face-to-face with all the objective, credible evidence contradicting the idea of an afterlife.

The folks in this second group didn’t flat-out say, usually, that no such thing as an afterlife exists at all. But they did say that they’d never found evidence supporting any claims of it, and plenty contradicting it. They’d found no other sources of mind, nor any evidence that our minds ever continue past our bodies’ deaths. Instead, they’d found countless connections between our minds and our meat, so to speak.

Only Room for Truth.

I’d like to stress that my investigation could only happen when I understood how to accurately assess claims in the first place. Without that skill, the flim-flam artists in religion can make their false claims sound very persuasive. After learning it, I’ve seen countless times how poorly Christians in particular assess claims.

I didn’t want to stop believing in anything, especially something that had brought me great comfort at times of loss.

But with the passage of time, I’ve found that, like Katya said in the movie, my life now only has room for truth.

And you know, I think I’ve gotten closer to that ideal through the discarding of my onetime belief in an afterlife. We’ll take up there next!

NEXT UP: What it meant to move past belief in an afterlife. Christians love to say that’d be the worst imaginable fate ever for them, and I thought it would be for me. But surprisingly, something else entirely happened. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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